The pro-Obama, self-described Marxist left has a tough job on its hands. Well before taking office, Obama has made it painfully obvious that his administration will be in effect Clinton’s third term. With Mrs. Clinton about to assume the office of Secretary of State, a perfect symbol of the kind of bellicose foreign policy that the dovish President-elect campaigned against, one wonders whether the primary was just some kind of elaborate deception foisted on a gullible public yearning for change.
Perhaps nobody with Marxist credentials after a fashion is better qualified to serve as a spin doctor for the incoming Obama administration than Carl Davidson, the 65 year old 1960s SDS leader and editor of the Guardian newspaper, a New Left weekly newspaper that morphed into a Maoist publication around the same time that the shards of SDS were launching the New Communist Movement. The New Communist Movement, embodied in sects like Bob Avakian’s RCP, styled itself after the CPUSA before it became “revisionist”. In keeping with their neo-Stalinist ambitions, such groups became past masters at lying through their teeth and opportunist politics, including a turn toward the Democratic Party. In realigning with the 150 year old party of racism and imperialist war, they came full circle. If SDS had resolved to go “part of the way with LBJ”, many of its veterans who came to embrace the DP were now ready to go all the way with Obama.
In a prolix article titled “The Bumpy Road Ahead: New Tasks of the Left Following Obama’s Victory” that was posted to Portside, a mailing list moderated by the Eurocommunist Committees of Correspondence, Davidson uses every trick he learned in the neo-Stalinist milieu to shore up support for Obama and discredit his opponents on the left who are stigmatized as “ultraleft” for their opposition to the “war on terror”, Wall Street bailouts, Zionism and other disgusting policies about to be carried out by the Democrats.
After reminding us of what a breakthrough it was to have a Black president (an observation that will likely begin to wear thin after a year or so of DP misrule), Davidson attempts to explain Obama’s presidency in class terms:
The Obama team at the top is comprised of global capital’s representatives in the U.S. as well as U.S. multinational capitalists, and these two overlap but are not the same. It is a faction of imperialism, and there is no need for us to prettify it, deny it or cover it up in any way. The important thing to see is that it is neither neoliberalism nor the old corporate liberalism. Obama is carving out a new niche for himself, a work in progress still within the bounds of capitalism, but a ‘high road’ industrial policy capitalism that is less state-centric and more market- based in its approach, more Green, more high tech, more third wave and participatory, less politics-as- consumerism and more ‘public citizen’ and education focused. In short, it’s capitalism for a multipolar world and the 21st century.
For those a bit puzzled by the reference to “third wave”, this is the very same buzzword coined by Alvin Toffler to describe a post-industrial society. The first wave was composed of small farms and the second is synonymous with the industrial revolution. Needless to say, this schema developed by a former editor of Fortune magazine has little to do with Marxism. Davidson, a computer consultant, became smitten with the idea a couple of decades ago and promoted it as part of a high-tech driven brand of market socialism called “cyRev”. I analyzed his theories in an article that can be read here. As an unrepentant Marxist, I felt quite put off by the kind of Silicon Valley boosterism that pervaded cyRev:
In our view of socialism, we affirm the entrepreneurial spirit, the motivating energy of the market and the right of individuals to become wealthy through the private ownership of the capital they have helped to create. At the same time, we fundamentally reorder priorities in how both property and capital is defined. While both personal property and capital may still be owned by individuals, we no longer see ownership as an absolute power. Property, especially productive property in the form of capital, is to be seen primarily as a social power relation that can be guided and regulated, just as other power relations are regulated for the common good of society. Incomes are also subject to progressive taxation.
Beyond the “third wave” nonsense, one has to wonder what use it is to speak of “neoliberalism” as some kind of bogey man. Terms such as “neoliberalism” and “globalization” do not have very much use in understanding the dynamics of the American economy or divisions within the bourgeoisie for that matter. For example, trade agreements such as NAFTA are generally understood to be symbols of neoliberalism but there is little likelihood that Obama will do anything to overturn them. Furthermore, in choosing Eric Holder as his Attorney General, Obama has shown indifference to imperialist crimes (a term I find more useful than neoliberalism or globalization) in Colombia, as WBAI reporter Mario Murillo points out:
In 2003, an Organization of American States report showed that Chiquita’s subsidiary in Colombia, Banadex, had helped divert weapons and ammunition, including thousands of AK-47s, from Nicaraguan government stocks to the AUC. The AUC – very often in collaboration with units of the U.S.-trained Armed Forces – is responsible for hundreds of massacres of primarily peasants throughout the Colombian countryside, including in the banana-growing region of Urabá, where it is believed that at least 4,000 people were killed. Their systematic use of violence resulted in the forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of poor Colombians, a disproportionate amount of those people being black or indigenous.
In 2004, Holder helped negotiate an agreement with the Justice Department for Chiquita that involved the fruit company’s payment of “protection money” to the AUC, in direct violation of U.S. laws prohibiting this kind of transaction. In the agreement brokered by Holder, Chiquita officials pleaded guilty and agreed to pay a fine of $25 million, to be paid over a 5-year period. However, not one Chiquita official involved in the illegal transactions was forced to serve time for a crime that others have paid dearly for, mainly because they did not have the kind of legal backing that Holder’s team provided. Holder continues to represent Chiquita in the civil action, which grew out of this criminal case.
Trying in vain to cover his opportunist politics with a Marxist veneer, Davidson tries to explain the Obama “alliance” (i.e., Wall Street investment banks and the moveon.org member operating a computer from his bedroom) in terms of Gramscian “hegemonic blocs”:
What is a hegemonic bloc? Most power elites maintain their rule using more than armed force. They use a range of tools to maintain hegemony, or dominance, which are ‘softer,’ meaning they are political and cultural instruments as well as economic and military. They seek a social base in the population, and draw them into partnership and coalitions through intermediate civil institutions. Keeping this bloc together requires a degree of compromise and concession, even if it ultimately relies on force. The blocs are historic; they develop over time, are shaped by the times, and also have limited duration. When external and internal crises disrupt and lead them to stagnation, a new ‘counter-hegemonic’ bloc takes shape, with a different alignment of economic interests and social forces, to challenge it and take its place. These ideas were first developed by the Italian communist and labor leader, Antonio Gramsci, and taken up again in the 1960s by the German New Left leader, Rudi Dutschke. They are helpful, especially in nonrevolutionary conditions, in understanding both how our adversaries maintain their power, as well as the strategy and tactics needed to replace them, eventually by winning a new socialist and popular democratic order.
This, of course, is just a bunch of malarkey. For Gramsci, the goal was not to work within hegemonic blocs in alliance with the bourgeoisie, but to create counter-hegemonic blocs led by the working class and a (genuine) vanguard party. In a useful article on the relevance of Gramsci to today’s struggles that appeared in the journal Socialism and Democracy, Thomas J. Butko noted:
It is clear to Gramsci that the first stage in a war of position must involve the dissemination of new ideas by the counter-hegemonic bloc to intellectually, culturally, and morally prepare the ground for the revolutionary force and its ascent to hegemonic dominance. In this context, it is only by persuasively demonstrating to society at large that its conception of the world is inherently superior to those of the dominant powers that such a counter-hegemonic force can conquer civil society and eventually exert its political leadership.
In any case, for those who take their Gramsci seriously, the task today as it was in the 1920s is to challenge the dominant powers, as Butko puts it. If Davidson is intent on maneuvering within the hegemonic bloc, that of course is his privilege as long as he understands that this has nothing to do with Marxism.
In a section titled “The Bankruptcy of the Ultraleft”, Davidson castigates a wide range of opponents who refused to get on the Obama bandwagon, namely the “Trotskyist, anarchist and Maoist left.” (For obvious reasons, Davidson does not refer to Counterpunch or Znet since these outlets of opposition to Obama can not be dismissed to the margins of the left. Counterpunch gets something like 100,000 unique visits a day, hardly the stuff of the Spartacist League.)
As opposed to these wreckers and splitters, the ones who “got it right” in his words were the CCDS (Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, cc-ds.org, ) the Communist Party USA, cpusa.org, and Freedom Road Socialist Organization (FRSO, freedomroad.org). He also puts in a good word for DSA “which at least saw the importance of defeating McCain and backing Obama, even though they only managed to put out a rather wimpy pro-forma statement without once mentioning race.”
He is also peeved at “the sixty or more Indymedia sites, and you hardly see anything useful said besides macho bluster and shit-talk against the few pro-voting-for-Obama postings put up.” All of these ultraleftists were content to bark at a “united Black communist” and “the best elements of labor”:
‘You’re deluded!’ You’re Obamaniacs! ‘You’re wrong!’ ‘Obama is a capitalist!’ ‘Don’t Drink the Kool-Aid! Obama is the more dangerous warmonger because he’s the new ‘Uncle Tom’ Black face of imperialism!’
Of course, for this kind of harangue to have any effect, you must make sure to put words in the mouths of your adversary. As somebody who has written a fair amount against Obama, including an article on his economic advisers that has been read by nearly 18,000 people to date, I don’t traffic in crude reductionisms like “Obama is a capitalist”. My main problem with Obama in fact is that he does not even operate as a Democratic Party liberal. Here is a snippet from the aforementioned article:
Another adviser with a particular interest in health care is David Cutler, a Harvard economist who was also an adviser to Bill Clinton-surprise, surprise. Cutler wrote an article for the New England Journal of Medicine in 2006 asserting that “The rising cost … of health care has been the source of a lot of saber rattling in the media and the public square, without anyone seriously analyzing the benefits gained.”
Anxious to show the good side of rising costs, Cutler and a group of other economists defend the idea that a powerful and profitable medical industry can serve as an engine of economic growth in the USA as the wretched Gina Kolata reported in the August 22, 2006 NY Times.
It is not worth correcting all the errors in Davidson’s interminable article, so I will just conclude with some comments on a dichotomy he draws between “revolutionary” and “non-revolutionary” conditions:
If the question of the day was immediate working-class mass action on seizing power from the capitalist class, for reform vs. revolution, socialism or capitalism NOW, they might have had a point. But it’s not. Even with the financial crisis, it’s not even close. Besides getting troops out of this or that country, they don’t even have a package of demands or structural reforms worthy of the name being put forward. Worse of all, they don’t think any distinction between revolutionary and non-revolutionary conditions is all that important. What that means, in turn, is that it’s almost impossible for them, as groups and as a trend, to correct their course.
This is really a timeworn argument going back to Eduard Bernstein. During the late 19th century, under conditions of a long imperialist expansion, socialists began to feel that revolution was a far-off ideal whose arrival in the distant future would be commemorated each year at banquets. In the meantime, efforts would be directed toward achieving ameliorative reforms such as the kind that fell under the rubric of “sewer socialism” in the U.S. Of course, whatever else one would say about our socialist forefathers and mothers from 125 years ago, they at least put their energies into building socialist institutions of a counter-hegemonic nature rather than ringing doorbells for a bourgeois politician.
But more to the point, it is entirely possible that we are entering a period that will have much more in common with the one that preceded WWI or WWII as capitalism entered a period of intractable contradictions. With daily reminders of 1929 in the mainstream press, it is incumbent on those who still take their Marxism seriously to begin constructing a counter-hegemonic bloc that can finally put an end to the system that exploits the working class and threatens the future of the planet.